Airlines Racing to Fill Talent Pipeline of Pilots

As anyone who’s been bumped from a flight knows all too well, airlines are having little difficulty filling their passenger seats these days. It’s the seats upfront–in the cockpit–that are a little more problematic. An estimate by the Boeing Co. finds that airlines will need to recruit 635,000 pilots over the next two decades as massive numbers of pilots retire, the Wall Street Journal reports, even as the industry confronts one of the most-severe pilot shortages ever right now. The dearth of pilots has forced airlines to cancel flights because there was no one available to fly them, the WSJ reports. The shortage has pummeled regional airlines especially hard, where the pay can be significantly lower for pilots than at the major carriers.

The problem lies at the confluence of two factors: A steady rise in the number of airline passengers over the years and a decrease in the number of pilots, as cutbacks and bankruptcies among airlines in the wake of 9/11 forced many pilots to retire or take jobs overseas and made the job of pilot seem a lot less appealing than it previously had been. Peter Gall, a former pilot who now teaches aerospace engineering at West Virginia University, writes that when he was growing up, flying for an airline was viewed as a prestigious job–one that paid quite well, too: Pilots on international flights made $300,000 or more in the early 90’s in today’s dollars. But airline deregulation and the after-effects of 9/11 forced a lot of pilots to take drastic pay cuts. Meanwhile, the U.S. military–long a dependable supplier of well-trained pilots to the industry–has cut back the number of pilots it trains each year as its use of unmanned drones has risen, Gall writes. This means young people who want to fly must often pay for their own education rather than having Uncle Sam train them–a cost that often exceeds $100,000, he writes.

Airlines are coming up with creative ways to address the shortage. Delta Air Lines is reaching out to its flight attendants, ticket agents and other employees to see if they’re interested in becoming pilots, CNBC reports. The airline, which estimates it will need to hire 8,000 pilots over the next decade, will pay for their flight school while they take an unpaid leave of absence for pilot training (they’ll be able to retain their employee benefits during their leave in return for paying a share of the costs). Successful graduates will then be offered a job at one of Delta’s regional carriers and be eligible for a pilot job at the main carrier after 42 months. Current Delta pilots will serve as mentors to the employee-trainees, the company said. Delta is also working with high schools and universities to get students interested in pilot careers. Other airlines are taking similar steps to bolster the talent pipeline, with American Airlines launching the American Airlines Cadet Academy for students interested in flight careers.

Airlines are also responding to the shortage by boosting pilots’ pay: American Airlines upped pay and benefits for pilots and flight attendants by $230 million last year and by $350 million this year and in 2019, the WSJ reports. Median pay for pilots in the U.S. has risen by 39 percent since 2010 to $162,230 last year, according to government data.

Airlines such as Delta are also reaching out to under-represented groups as they cast a wider net for talent. The airline is working with professional associations such the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Women in Aviation International, the National Intercollegiate Flying Association and the National Gay Pilots Association to encourage students through high school age to pursue a career in aviation, CNBC reports.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.